Wayward Saint

Reviewed by Mark Harris

Writing a life of Leonard Cohen is a thankless task. Quite simply, the man has too many fans, and each of his idolaters worships an icon a little bit different from the one adored by all the rest. For some, Westmount’s most famous poetic son is primarily a writer; for others, he is almost exclusively a singer. There are those who delight in their hero’s spiritual quest, just as there are those who vicariously get off on his seemingly endless sexual encounters. Although Cohen’s following is worldwide, expatriate Montrealers, Zen Buddhists, non-Orthodox Jews, Rue Saint-Denis intellectuals, women with high IQs and even higher romantic expectations, London music journalists, closet believers in monotheistic religions, and late night booze artists are probably the sub-categories most susceptible to the man’s unique—and uniquely seductive—charm.

Although she’s based in San Francisco, Sylvie Simmons was born in London and she makes her living as a music journalist. She also writes fiction, and her best-received previous biography was of Serge Gainsbourg, yet another exemplary song-writing Jewish hipster. With a background like that, it was inevitable that her life of “Leonard” would differ radically from that of, say, literary scholar Ira B. Nadel.

Differ it does, sometimes for the better, but often not. What is perhaps most surprising is that the pages Simmons devotes to the poet’s career prior to the 1967 release of Songs of Leonard Cohen are far more intriguing than the chapters that follow. Indeed, her account of the man’s early years is as insightful as it is enjoyable, even though her knowledge of that time is seriously defective, while her insight into what came after seems close to infinite.

Thus, as the book proceeds, our esteem paradoxically tends to decline. The author’s heroic attempts to come to grips with a time and place to which she can lay no personal claim (the pre-Quiet Revolution Quebec in which Leonard Cohen was raised) is all too quickly replaced by a world she knows full well, the shifting musical scenes of New York, Nashville, and Los Angeles. Simmons might not understand much about Canadian poets, but she seems intimately familiar with the resumes of just about any session musician, back-up singer, or musical arranger you might care to mention. The production of each Leonard Cohen album is explored in painstaking— at times, painful—detail, and the itinerary of every last tour is analyzed with the assiduity of a military campaign. Occasionally, the musical detail becomes so stifling one wants to exclaim (to partially paraphrase C. S. Lewis in a radically different cultural context), “Oh no, not another fricking front man!”

There are likewise frequent lapses in thematic continuity. The young poet was a convinced vegetarian, but the old troubadour seems to have given up on this, even though he otherwise follows spiritual disciplines that might daunt Trappists half his age. What caused this change of heart? You’re not going to find out here.

An even more vexatious problem is Simmons’s seeming disinterest in the Québécois side of Leonard Cohen. This new headache is not altogether separate from the previous one. Thus, while witness Arnold Steinberg was probably right when the said that “Leonard’s French was certainly minimal” in the 1950s, that most definitely is not the case now, when the aging pop star fields questions from La Presse reporters with effortless grace. Clearly, something happened in the interim—but what?

Many of the Canucks in Cohen’s past, both francophone and anglophone, are either absent from the portrait altogether or else inadequately understood. Simmons makes some effort to “get” Irving Layton (although not enough to realize that his once great poetry declined tragically with age), but A. M. Klein, F. R. Scott, Louis Dudek, Lewis Furey, Carole (not Carol!) Laure, Lionel Tiger, and Rufus Wainwright are, beyond their immediate narrative functions, reduced to little more than names on a page.

To be fair, Simmons does a pretty good job of describing Mountain Street’s most famous Saint Germain-des-Prés style watering hole (although she must be relying on archival sources, since le Bistro chez Lou Lou les bacchantes disappeared decades ago). When Leonard turns down the Governor General’s Award for Selected Poems, 1956-1968, we are informed, ”This was most unusual. Only one other winner in the past had refused the honour and its $2,500 purse—a French separatist who was making a political protest.” No doubt . . . but which one? This lack of Québécois precision is fairly typical. Simmons doesn’t even seem to be aware that Cohen’s Montreal home is located in Le Plateau, reputedly the second most livable neighbourhood on earth.

As for her subject’s literary career, the author is respectful but not much more. After the publication of The Energy of Slaves, she devotes only a few more pages to her subject’s poetic and prosaic effusions. And in regard to Beautiful Losers, she clearly has no idea what to make of Cohen’s literary masterpiece. Instead, she largely focuses on its initial lack of success (yet my 1976 vintage paperback boasts of half a million copies in print).

Still, even if I’m Your Man gradually betrays its early promise as a literary biography, it never ceases to register as spritely pop journalism. Those who tend to think of Leonard Cohen as a “prophet” must be given pause by the knowledge that, in addition to Judaism and Zen, the man has serially embraced the tents of “core” Hinduism, Scientology, and even the “catastrophic” philosophy of Immanuel Velikovsky, a style of spiritual “infidelity” that eerily shadows the carnal impulse to be nobody’s man for very long. This “old smoothie” remains as cagey as ever in regard to his complicated relationships with his mother and other women, and it is easy to guess why his openness to all forms of religious expression is counterpointed by an equal suspicion of the more intrusive forms of psychoanalysis. Always quick with a quip, Leonard continues to play his cards close to his vest, and the wittiness of his responses tends to stifle probing inquiry (when I asked him why he thought he was the most popular singer in Poland, after a moment’s reflection, the poet replied, “Over there, they have this tradition of liking ugly guys who can’t sing”). This sort of gentle self-deprecation has prevented a lot of rocks from being overturned.

In Leonard Cohen’s oeuvre, the line between transcendental truthfulness and the snake oil con is often razor-thin. No doubt this is the secret of his abiding appeal. Or, as the poet warned in one of his famous lyrics, “I told you when I came, I was a stranger.” As the years pass, it looks increasingly as if he’ll leave as one, too.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.